Summer does not begin until the fence goes up around Marquette Park. Until the bocce balls roll, the gravies simmer, and the grapes are stomped. Despite what the temperature and humidity may say in the weeks prior, my summer starts with Memphis Italian Festival.
My maternal extended family – the Romers – has participated in the festival since 1990, the second year of the festival held by the Holy Rosary Catholic School Men’s Club. In those early years, the festival was a one day affair. The participants were parishioners, and the spaghetti dinner in the gym was the main money maker. Mac, my grandfather, cooked inside of a camping tent on the school soccer field. For years, our team name was Chef Boy-r-Dan and His Spaghetti Cookin’ Clan. Mac’s (Dan’s) face was the logo.
Eventually, the festival outgrew the campus, and it moved to the city park next door. Apart from the year my great grandmother’s funeral was the same weekend as the festival, we’ve been in the contest every year since. And even that year, my dad, unable to attend the funeral, put a lawn chair and a cooler in our booth spot. Each year, we temporarily relocate our lives to the park for three days, complete with a refrigerator, WWII field oven, and ceiling fans suspended from the tents by bungee cords. There are a lot of engineers in my family.
My grandparents were early members of Holy Rosary parish, and my brothers, cousins, and I, like my mom and uncles before us, attended Holy Rosary School. For many years, the first day of the festival was the last day of school. My mom would check me out of my classroom on that last half day and walk me to our booth where I changed out of my blue and gray plaid jumper and into my summer uniform. In those years, I took great pride in being our team’s “junior server.”
The year after he burnt the gravy and scraped the bottom of the pot while stirring, Mac retired as team cook. We renamed the team Rome(r), Italy, and his kids started rotating the cooking duties. Now, it’s an unofficial sign of your self-identified adulthood when you enter the cooking rotation.
In high school, my mom signed me up for the grape stomping contest, and my friend Catherine and I squished our way to victory. (A satisfying and sticky experience that I relived with my sister-in-law Anna almost a decade later.) My friends would hang out at the Rome(r), Italy booth, spending time together before we parted ways for large swaths of the summer.
The first year of the team bocce tournament, my dad’s brother, John, was visiting from Oklahoma. He’d never played, but he’s excellent at horseshoes and washers. Turns out, the same strategies apply, and, with him as a ringer, Rome(r), Italy won the inaugural Memphis Italian Festival Galtelli Cup.
Each year, we cook a massive amount of thin spaghetti and triple batches of our gravy recipe and serve dinner to hundreds of our friends. There is a magic in seeing so many people crammed together under our tents sharing a meal. On occasion, you’ll see priests sitting near high school students across the aisle from my parents’ college roommates while children weave through the crowd to the dessert table. When the food and beverages flow, so does the conversation.
Our tent has bounced around locations inside the park but we’ve been at the quiet corner near the judges’ tent for the past decade. Our team grew slightly, grafting on the Staneks, who, while not technically related, are family in all the ways that matter. It grew again when my husband and I added the fourth generation to the team. My brothers have added sisters for me and aunts for my kids. My children get to spend three days each year hanging out at a park surrounded by family and friends, sweating, playing games, and eating enormous amounts of food.
After two years away from the park, this year’s festival promises to be the summer-kickoff I missed so dearly during the worst days of the pandemic. My festivals look different these years. I watch my cousins run off with their friends. I cook my triple batch of gravy. This year, I’m muddling and mixing our cocktail contest entry.
Mac passed away many years ago, but when I’m at the park, with my people, I feel him with us. I remember the summer mornings when I came to the park early to sit with him as he hosted donuts and coffee for the Knights of Columbus. I can almost hear his big belly laugh as he watched his grandkids douse each other with spray bottles. These years, amid the scramble to cook food and supervise kids, I am grateful for the tradition he helped us begin.
For those three days, my past and present blur. I am simultaneously the eight-year-old excited to be a part of something and the mother of an eight-year-old who wants to help. I’m the friend hosting the dinner party, the big sister teasing her brothers, the niece talking to her uncles, and the wife stealing a moment with her husband.
The Memphis Italian Festival is how I start my summer. It’s also how I remember my past.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.